Dusky Warbler at Ham Wall RSPB, Somerset – 27th Dec

I’m on an end of year roll now. The very mild weather is producing some equally unseasonable birds nationally, most notably Britain’s first ever December record of Red-rumped Swallow in Norfolk this week. Also a few lingering Yellow-browed Warblers here and there, and for me a tricky little lifer: a Dusky Warbler on the Somerset levels. Whilst small numbers of the last-named Tundra breeder pass through annually on autumn passage, this year there have been records right through December.

So today, armed with my picnic chair and prepared for a long stake-out, I headed west to the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve. The Avalon marshes are familiar to me, having twitched Pied-billed Grebe and Hudsonian Godwit here in the recent past and European Roller years ago. The re-generated peat workings either side of Ashcott corner are also an excellent site for wetland birds such as Great White Egret, Bittern and Bearded Tit; like Otmoor on a grander scale. Today a Glossy Ibis was seen flying over just before my arrival.



Shortly after midday I joined a group of birders near a path to Ham Wall’s Avalon Hide (ST461398), who had been tracking the Dusky Warbler for a while. Soon I too began to hear the bird’s hard clicking teck, teck call coming from the reed bed edge in front of me. Some amongst us were picking out the bird low down in cover, but I had to wait a little longer. Then some birders who had gone left called everyone else over. The DW was now moving around in trees to one side of the path, up to two metres off the ground. Here I gained good views of the plain-looking sprite going about its business.

My companions seemed more like locals on their patch than twitchers, and after 1pm someone said the DW stops calling in the afternoon so would be hard to relocate. The group then dispersed but I had nowhere else to go and was content just to chill out here, feeling glad of the dry if still grey conditions. For the few who remained our bird was heard calling several times more over the next two hours and seen occasionally.

I need not have brought my chair since there was a bench overlooking one spot favoured by the Dusky. I have a limited knowledge of calls but having learned this one a couple of weeks ago it just seemed particularly easy to retain. Then there had been a bird near Bognor Regis, Sussex for three days. But on 12th and 13th it wasn’t reported and Mike and I stayed with the Penduline Tits at Titchfield Haven, Hants seeing only the male at distance. Two females there eluded us.

On that occasion we had talked with a birder who had been the last to report the Bognor DW. He described how it was moving around calling all the while and today’s bird was just the same. The highlight came at 2:30pm when this Dusky Warbler moved around the lagoon edge in front of my bench, showing well at times but not for long enough to capture an image. So here I was tracking a rare warbler on call, not something I can boast of very often.

dusky warbler.01

Dusky Warbler © rights of owner reserved

The only pictures posted on RBA to date (see here) look much the same as I could have managed. So I have outsourced an image from the species’ usual wintering grounds in south-east Asia (above) to show what this is all about. The absence of big lens photographers at a twitch always separates the birders’ birds from the media stars. And though it is good to get close to birds and even obtain reasonable pictures myself, I know what ambience in the field I prefer. Not that I have anything against photographers of course!

This was a nice relaxed afternoon whiling away time observing a life-list addition and gaining an understanding of the species. I left around 3pm as large numbers of visitors were assembling to watch the local Starling roost. Then given what must have been post-Christmas congestion around Bristol it took almost four hours to get home.


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